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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.
Sheboygan, Wisconsin has one of the most even distributions of income in the US, but the middle class now fights to preserve its prosperity.
SAUSAGE AND VINEGAR
The building is full of meat in various stages of undress. Deer are slaughtered there, meat cut into steaks and chops, and a machine whips dollops of ground meat into casings and shoots out sausages.
Sausage of all kinds gets hung on racks and rolled into a smoker before its tossed behind the glass of the store’s 80-foot meat counter, filled with bratwursts, chops, wieners, steaks and summer sausages.
Miesfeld's Meat Market is best known for its meats and cheese and serves more than 30 varieties of Bratwurst. People come from miles for a true "brat experience."
Miesfeld’s Meat offers up to 3,000 items, but has not always been thus.
Chuck Miesfeld’s father died suddenly when the store was still a small downtown butcher shop. Miesfeld decided to borrow the money to move the shop and its eight employees to the edge of town in 2000. It was a huge risk, Miesfeld said.
“Those are my nuts on the line, not the people who work here,” said Miesfeld. “You wouldn’t believe the sleepless nights I had.”
It’s worked out well for everyone. Go to the Charcoal Inn, a little joint in north Sheboygan, and you can order a Miesfeld bratwurst that’s been sliced open before it’s grilled and served with sauteed onions and sauerkraut and mustard on a fresh bun (they call it a “hard roll”) from Johnston’s Bakery a mile to the south.
Miesfeld now employs 43 people, and sells meat to 110 restaurants and 45 supermarkets.
So when people say they can’t find a job, Miesfeld tells them to look for something better: “You’ve got to work at things. You can be whatever you want to be, but you’ve got to go out and grab it.”
One man who has gone out and “grabbed it” is Dave Sachse. He buys and sells industrial companies, and he probably wouldn’t mind if you called him an industrialist.
He has an office building on the outskirts of Sheboygan that he bought at a discount after the group of realtors that built it lost all their money in the recession. He was there at his desk at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. The flat screen on the wall was tuned to SportsCenter, the volume was down low.
David Sachse, owner of Nutrients, Inc., sold Polar Ware/Stoelting to the Vollrath family last year. The statue of a carved wooden charging bull is in Sachse's office in Sheboygan.
The building has an office for Sachse’s son and an analyst they hired, and it’s full of memorabilia. Signed Green Bay Packers helmets, signed jerseys from Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Another piece of memorabilia hangs above the door inside the bathroom. The name on the blue-and-red baseball cap is Darosa, Inc., a venture that didn’t work out for Sachse. It drives home the razor-sharp edge between success and failure for anyone sitting on the office toilet.
“I keep that to remind me they don’t always work,” Sachse said.
He grew up in Sheboygan, where his parents ran a longstanding luggage and leather goods business. He went to Marquette University to study dentistry but found it didn’t interest him.
He ended up in sales at Kohler for 15 years and learned about power systems. He bought an acoustic ceiling and wall panel company in Chicago and then a wall panel company in Ladysmith, Wis. He combined the companies and then sold them to Owens Corning. Voilà. He’s been buying and selling businesses ever since.
Now he is at least part owner of a vinegar maker, an industrial coatings company, Milwaukee Forge and a metal-stamping business in Sheboygan Falls. His son is trying to launch an online business.
“God has been very good to me,” Sachse said. “I made a lot of money and I was very lucky.”
He’s optimistic. He doesn’t think labor is always the key cost of manufacturing, and he thinks the US competes well in other ways. The market is always in flux, and people like Sachse, with quick brains and capital and connections to spare, are ready.
“I think our best years are coming,” he said.
WAITING OVER THE HOLE
Kristopher Panick, ice fishing at the marina, is less prepared. He’s a complicated mix of cheerful and worried when he talks about the economy.
He gets paid $18.50 per hour when there’s work. It’s an employer’s market, he said, and he worries about the immigrant roof and siding contractors who underbid his firm.
The wind shot snow across the ice and the flag on one of his tip-ups popped into the air. He thought it might be a northern pike, or a lake trout. He walked to the hole and pulled up the line. No bite, just a squirming minnow.
Panick has a girlfriend, but he has a hard time making ends meet just for him and his three dogs. Last year he made $30,000 and was thrilled about it.
“That’s really good for me,” he said.
All around him are financial struggles. One of his brothers has been out of work for 18 months. One of his friends has maxed out six credit cards.
Yet Panick doesn’t begrudge anyone for making money. He believes hard work is rewarded. He believes in his skills, and trusts his boss to find jobs that will allow him to put food on his table.
“There’s always going to be the people in charge who have the money,” he said.